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Sea Level Rising, Coral Bleaching, Fisheries Collapsing… Where to start?

I recently returned from the International Aquarium Congress (IAC), hosted by the amazing team at the Vancouver Aquarium in British Colombia, Canada.  The congress highlighted eye opening presentations, inspiring individuals, impressive new projects, and impactful research.  That said, the congress was far from uplifting.  The key note speakers where not there to inspire optimism, but rather to give a steady dose of realism.  Here’s what I mean:

Oceanographer John Englander kicked things off with the blunt reality of sea level rise due to climate change.  Sea level rise is happening now and will only accelerate as the ice sheets continue to melt.

Dr. Gregory Flato from the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis shared similar news. Using a series of historical data points showing increasing levels of greenhouse gases and temperature rise, Dr. Flato showed how the warming trend will continue even if carbon dioxide emissions stop today. These same climate change projections, being run by over 30 organizations world-wide, are all generally aligned, plus or minus local variations.  Clearly this is no hoax, contrary to what some want to believe, especial in the USA.  Though that would certainly make it easier to sleep at night.

Leafy sea dragon
Leafy sea dragon

Dr. Paul Loiselle from the New York Aquarium and the Wildlife Conservation Society talked about the lack of progress in saving critically endangered freshwater fish species in regions around the world. Dams, habitat destruction, mining, invasive species introductions, and other causes are simply crushing these species.  There are now 2,263 freshwater fish on the endangered or critically endangered lists.  Highlighting the plight of the Lake Victoria Cichlid population, Paul made a passionate plea to the audience to contribute more time, energy and programs to save these diverse and special species.

Coral bleaching is very bad.  Dr. James Guest, currently working on a research fellowship in Hawaii, presented “Coral Reefs in the 21st Century:  Reasons for Optimism and Despair.”  And while Dr. Guest tried to focus on what is going well in the effort to revive these reefs, the undertone of the presentation was of massive and unprecedented destruction.  Warming water and increased acidification is simply killing off these meccas of biodiversity.  Fortunately, there does seem to be coral species that are developing some resistance to climate change, providing some optimism for future solutions and recovery.

Jennifer Pramuk from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle shared both her excitement and frustrations with the ongoing amphibian crisis, primarily driven by the chytrid fungus.  Perhaps her most telling and tragic story was how several of the 21 species of frog she has identified and described disappeared completely before the descriptions could be complete.  As co-chair of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group Jennifer challenged the audience to do more to save amphibian species before they disappear, begging them to find even an empty closet to sponsor ex situ conservation.

Dr. Peter Ross, is the founding director of the Ocean Pollution Research Program of the Vancouver Aquarium’s newly-launched Coastal Ocean Research Institute.  He shared a presentation titled “Navigating the Complexities of Ocean Pollution.”  He briefly touched on the many, many ways humans have and are still impacting the oceans and the creatures that live in, on and above them, everything from the DDT almost destroying the bald eagle to the PCBs that are still present in large quantities in Killer Whales, to PCBE’s that are building up in Harbor Seals, to the plastics objects, fibers and microbeads that are flooding the ocean.  I can only imagine the guilt and embarrassment of anyone in the room carrying a disposable plastic bottle!

The capstone keynote, presented by Julie Packard, the founding director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium emphasized the need to drive change, wherever you are, in the method most relevant to your institution.

Coral is especially susceptible to climate change

There were certainly positive presentations at the congress too:

Sustainable seafood programs like Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch, the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise and Happy Oceans, a new program in Japan are making a real difference and are being used to change consumer AND supplier behavior worldwide. Both Seafood Watch and Ocean Wise have fantastic mobile apps that can help you sort out the many options when buying seafood. I highly encourage you to try them out!

Coral breeding and recovery projects, though not simple, are starting to show real promise.  And maybe most impactful though not a silver bullet, governments are starting to establish more and more protected habitats,  such as the newly expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

There were encouraging conversations focused on sustainable populations within the aquarium community and a focus on conservation relevant collections.  I am especially excited to see how Species360 can help with the husbandry, welfare and population management for these collections.

As the congress was closing Aquamarine Fukushima was announced as the host of the next IAC, in 2018, in large part because of their amazing recovery from the March 2011 tsunami and the resulting nuclear disaster.  Their excitement on stage was contagious!

So…good news did exist, but it was much harder to find, and even then it came with a reality check and call to action.  It is abundantly clear that the world’s seas are not doing well, they are only getting worse, and we are to blame.

Those who know me realize that when I see a problem I immediately want to take action (often to the point of frustration of family and friends) so this conference was especially hard for me.  Clearly we can each do our part to reduce our carbon emission, reduce our consumption, and eat sustainably.  BUT, there is no one solution, person, group, organization, or country or even region that can really make this change. It is going to take world-wide change, and for the human species it just doesn’t get any harder than that.

–Jim Guenter, CEO, Species360

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. It’s long past time to debate whether or not global warming is “real”–to do so is to rob energy from efforts to actually do something about it. Efforts will vary from place to place, but we gotta make those efforts! And thanks for an excellent summary of the conference.

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